That Was Way Too Close

That Was Way Too Close

Imagine we’re passengers in a car heading towards a cliff. We’re screaming at the driver to wake up, slow down and turn the car away. The catastrophe unfolding before us is unthinkable.

Actually, we don’t need to imagine this. It’s the white-knuckle ride we’re already on. By not taking bold and ambitious action to halt climate change, we’re driving our civilization off a cliff. Scientists have been pleading with politicians for decades to address this threat. These demands have grown into a global chorus, most recently powered by young people who are realizing how much they have to lose.

But instead of heeding this science-based call, the nations of the world — swayed by a massive disinformation campaign — allowed carbon emissions to grow unchecked (half of all emissions have occurred since the mid-1980s). Just as predicted, this has lead to extreme weather, sea level rise, the spread of disease, famine and political instability. After so many years of being ignored, climate scientists have resorted to chaining themselves to buildings to draw attention to this threat to civilization. The United Nations has called the crisis Code Red for Humanity.

When it appeared in mid-July that the U.S. Senate once again would not take meaningful climate action, it felt to me as if we would never slow down in time. If we failed this summer, U.S. Congressional action would be unlikely for years, and by then we’d be well over the precipice. Scientists wondered how Republican Senators (and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin) could look their grandchildren in the eye, and the Republican party was described as a “protection racket for fossil fuel executives.”

Julie McNamara of the Union of Concerned Scientists eloquently described the growing dread:

Because the heat was still searing, the drought was still deepening, the wildfires were still burning, the extreme precipitation was still flooding, and the hurricanes were still looming. Because the costs kept mounting, the toll kept climbing, the infrastructure kept failing, and all the while we knew: Unless we act, every year from here will only be more severe.

But, in a stunning reversal, we’ve hit the brakes. The Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA), despite unanimous opposition from Republicans, and from the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Daniel Sherrell notes this opposition represents “a kind of normalized depravity” in which opponents were prioritizing “modest tax breaks over the integrity of life on Earth.”

Given the calamity that would result from inaction, the IRA is a remarkable achievement (albeit as Congress had never passed a climate bill before, the bar was pretty low). The legislation is projected to reduce U.S. carbon emissions 40% from 2005 levels by 2030, which is twice what would otherwise have occurred, and it will prevent millions of deaths by helping to mitigate climate impacts. There will be extraordinary investments in manufacturing, research and deployment of renewable technologies. These investments will generate millions of domestic jobs, which will accelerate the economic transformation already underway and build new political constituencies in support of climate action.

So take a moment to celebrate this achievement, which was decades in the making, including a lot of legislative research and planning in the two years before the 2020 election. Applaud how this will renew the leadership of the U.S. in the global effort to reduce emissions, making it more likely that China, India and other major emitters will make their own additional commitments.

It’s a laudable moment, but now we have to get back to work. This bill is not nearly enough to address the climate crisis.

The IRA slows our trajectory and buys us time to take the next essential steps. Remember, we’re still moving towards the cliff. To keep global average temperature rise to no more than 2°C, an increase that will result in devastating climatic alterations of great scale and expense, total global emissions must drop in half by 2030, and to net zero by 2070. As economist William Nordhaus notes, “A journey does begin with a single step. But if this is the last step, then we are in for a fiery future.”

We have to be more ambitious. In order to gain passage of the IRA, authors had to create a bill that is all “carrots” and no “sticks.” While we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, sticks like penalties for continuing to use fossil fuels and carbon taxes are going to be required for the expedited transition we need. Remember Bill McKibben’s statement about climate politics: “Winning slowly is the same thing as losing.”

After 15 years of working for climate action, I finally feel like we’re committing to a more hopeful future. Al Gore notes that we’ve crossed a political and economic threshold that creates unstoppable momentum. “The savings to consumers will be so impressive, and so massively deflationary, that people will not support politicians who will want to take us backwards. We’re not going back again.”

Daniel Sherrell lays out the path we must pursue with resolve:

As we question, grapple and experiment – as we lead, in other words – our opponents hold fast to their myopia. Blinkered, rigid, selfish to a fault, theirs is a losing ethic, a worldview in retreat. Ours, on the other hand, is advancing toward the helm. May we occupy every inch they concede. May the IRA be the floor, not the ceiling, of our ambition.